Thanks to the titular genius of an Art & Language/Red Krayola malapropism1, my poetic license this month allows me to muse once more on art thinking against the current political frontage of what might best be described as “non-art thinking”. As we enter what is almost the seventh month of virus-driven global control, it is fair to say that the novelty of the provisionally-titled pathogen, Novel Corona Virus (nCoV), has well and truly worn off, and our patience worn thin.
The shadow of the Virus, depending on where you’re located, seems rendered inkier daily by a heady cocktail of the looming (and ominous) US presidential election, the “politics” of Belarus and Hong Kong, Brexit, Black Lives Matter and the prospect of extinction visited upon numerous species (including our own), as a consequence of climate change. I have noticed also with the lengthening autumn shadows, a recent and increasing tendency of commentators to use some or all of the above factors in the same sentence as the term “inevitability”. This sense of resignation, bordering on fatalism seems embedded in our consciousness. I might dare also to conjecture that there exists a sense in which all of the above factors seem to have driven humanity towards a range of tribal behaviours that appear undignified, uncivilised and increasingly selfish. One also hears older arguments and reminiscences about humanity’s survival of world/civil wars, famine, plague etc. but strangely I find none of this even remotely consoling/reassuring, even though part of me feels that I should. But to be clear, the headlines of resignation, if taken to their logical conclusion, would probably play out something like this: “Trump seizes power despite election defeat”, “Lukashenko confirmed as lifetime President of Belarus”, “Hong Kong closed to foreign visitors and press indefinitely”, “Chaos as ‘No Deal’ Brexit confirmed by EU and UK Governments”, “Black Lives Matter backlash as protesters jailed”, “Planet Earth climate change is past point of no return”… and so forth.
These are not the sole reasons for my disquiets though, and the less visible manifestations of the current state of our collective human condition have now resolved themselves after some months of filtration and reflection. I would assert that the current predicaments cited above are not only (literally) man-made, but perhaps unique in our history, choreographed and propagated top-down by world leaders who have fast and loose relationships with both evidential or conscience-based notions of “truthfulness”.
There is a desperation attached to the moments we are living through currently, where deniers of all kinds seek to negate the evidence-based challenges to our blatantly doomed model of acquisitive capitalism and mindless governmental fixations with the idea of relentless economic growth. World leaders have seemingly come to embody our addiction to the visible materiality of “things” as they try to manage the unmanageable by speaking the unspeakable. This wouldn’t be quite so bad if it wasn’t for their individual and collective lack of creativity in being able to think the unthinkable as a way of reorganising their respective perceptual fields to find sensible, or at least staged, solutions.
If this seems something of a rant, we should do well to look at the foundations of our civilisations, as flawed as they may be. Generally, over the past 4,000 or so years, the evolution of evidence-based knowledge (e.g. science), checked and balanced by the sacrosanctity of individual and collective conscience, have evolved more-or-less mutually. When these tectonics have become untenably strained, history shows the consequences; consequences that jar and stain any claim we might have on human dignity, and these to be revisited at our leisure. Specifically I would offer events associated with enslavement, genocide, colonialism, fascism and the use of nuclear weapons as defining moments where either science or conscience has had had to seismically shift to catch-up with the other.
But alas, here is where my logic and understanding both run out. It now seems that almost any evidential truth, and any organ that might expound it, can be entirely negated by unfounded accusations of fakery, always it seems supported by the outlandish chants and threats of some flat-earth, weirdo, antisocial media chorus. Social media has given not only a voice to those whose obscene ravings shouldn’t be countenanced, but a traction and credibility to every crank, dick and harry who cares to capture or text their bile. You are of course free to disagree with me on this, but for every extinction rebellion there is now a survival rebellion it seems.
This brings me to the matter of conscience, and therefore implied matters of democracy. We must look to the history of civilisation as embodied through art, philosophy, religion, music and literature as being the key elements that helped, periodically, to recalibrate the moral compass of our species; a compass that has steered us through the advent of the civil, industrial and scientific revolutions and multitudinous moments of serious strife. A person’s conscience and its manifestations have, throughout history and across cultures, been respected as a private matter, to be tolerated where differences exist, and to be questioned where consensus is fabricated. To place one’s conscience in the public domain – and I include my own writings here – is now to be exposed to the same risks and ridicule as that visited on (irrefutable) scientific evidence.
As far as social media is concerned there is no noticeable difference between fact or opinion, assertion or dissent. Thus as McLuhan stated, the medium is the message, but with social media, the message, no matter how important, is lost in time and space a way that makes us yearn for the slo-mo romance of yesterday’s newspaper becoming tomorrows chip wrapper.
Being an intelligent species (or a species with some intelligent individuals), we have predicted the range of our possible collective futures through a wealth of literature and art: From the Mancunian moral maze of A Clockwork Orange, to the Gallic existential desertion of Camus, the nuclear Britpop of Colin Self, to the grainy, deranged anthems of Joy Division; Gogol’s diaries, Morricone’s genius, BTS and the ridiculous optimism of numerous post-apocalyptic Hollywood movies. Ad nauseam. I have asserted in other recent articles that this divergence and diversity of art and culture, models ways of ideating that our current generation of politicians seem unable to recognise, let alone grasp. What happened to the ability of our leaders to solve problems through an imaginative plurality of approach, rather than the thick-as-a-brick, repetitive application of convergent nut-cracking techniques. The worry is that the narrow and narrowing arteries of monotheistic problem-unsolving become nothing more than an exercise in cynical futility, avoidance and power grabbing. Our greedy leader-tribe (Trump, Putin, Johnson, Kequiang, Jong-un, Lukashenko et al.) seem defined variously by a familiar blend of charmlessness, flaccid machismo and proud stupidity.
Here are some ideas expressed through pictures though, to cheer you up and show you the visual and visible alternatives as an antidote.
1 The term malapropism derives from the character “Mrs. Malaprop,” in Sheridan’s The Rivals. Malaprop has a habit of replacing words with incorrect and absurd utterances to humorous effect. A miss-speech is considered malapropism when it sounds similar to the word it replaces, but has an entirely different meaning. One well-known example would be the Art-Language/Red Krayola collaborative project Sighs Trapped by Liars, which Michael Baldwin explained to me was based on a pornographic S&M passage which in original reading was “Thighs wrapped by wires...”. These characteristics make malapropisms different from other errors in speech, such as spoonerisms.